Texas leadership ignores partisan redistricting

G. Elliott Morris

Last week, Gov. Greg Abbott tweeted that President Obama and former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder are teaming up to “hijack the redistricting process to favor Democrats.” Mr. Governor, it takes a gerrymanderer to know a gerrymanderer—and Texas, most certainly, is gerrymandered.

Gerrymandering, of course, is the act of drawing districts to favor a specific group — in this case, the Republican Party. By drawing districts with more Republicans than Democrats, the State Legislature is preventing the opportunity for competitive elections, thus reducing the probability that Democratic voters in red districts will be represented by their choice congressperson.

The myth of redistricting fairness in Texas goes something like this: One, there are far more Republicans in Texas than there are Democrats, and that’s why they win House seats. Two, the Abbott Administration’s redistricting plan was upheld in the spring of 2016 with the Supreme Court ruling in their favor in Evenwel v Abbott. Finally, some say the Texas Legislature, who is in charge of approving redistricting plans, has delivered on their tough job of creating equally populated districts in a state very divided by urban and rural population. While these are all generally true, no substantial argument can be made that says TX-35, TX-33, and TX-10 (just to name a few) are fair districts.

By scare-mongering about Obama and Holder coming to turn Texas bright blue, Gov. Abbott distracts from his own government’s generous infraction on redistricting principles. Laws meant to prevent gerrymandering, detailed by Professor Justin Levitt, are purposefully stretched in Texas, it seems.

Legally, Texas is only required by federal law to draw congressional districts of equal population, that don’t “crack” or “pack” racial minorities. That means, for example, that districts can’t be composed of an over- or underpopulation of Hispanic voters, and they can’t have three times the population of another district in state. Beyond that, however, there are negligible legalities for Texas redistricting.

For example, there is no requirement for districts to be “compact”” — which is why we have a district (TX-35) that stretch along I-35 from San Antonio to Austin, or TX-34 that travels from the Texas-Mexico border all the way to New Braunfels. A quick examination of the Austin-Round Rock area shows that five districts originate in the city, then spread outward in a method called “stovepiping” to cities as far as Uvalde, Cypress, Palestine, and Cleburne. Indeed, Texas districts have some of the lowest “compactness” ratings in the country.

We also think of gerrymandering in terms of partisan composition and effects — that districts should not have overwhelming partisan lean. This is commonly referred to as partisan homogeneity. The main reason to avoid drawing homogenous districts — for example, a district made up of 75 percent Republicans and 25 percent Democrats — is to ensure competitive elections.

In Texas, that is not the case. Only one Texas congressional district is competitive this year. Others, like Rep. Michael McCaul’s TX-10, have been a steady 55-45 vote split in favor of Republicans for years. Even still, Rep. Lamar Smith (TX-21) receives anywhere from 60 to 92 percent of his districts votes each race since 1992.

It’s both visually and electorally apparent that Texas redistricting diminishes the voice of urban democrat voters. Although we are legal on the grounds of equal population and racial/ethnic compactness, geographic and partisan boundaries are being mixed and matched to form districts that favor those in power. If Gov. Abbott truly wanted to save us from redistricting evil, he would look inward.

Morris is a government and computer science junior. Follow him on Twitter @gelliottmorris.